Monday, July 30, 2012

Sid from Santa Fe on "Individualized Instruction."

I'm Rick!
Rick just dropped my summer class. Here at the Worst Juco in America, one can take 11 weeks of a 12 week summer class and still take the W.

And Rick took his W this morning.

Now, for the 11 weeks he was with us, he dominated class. He never missed an opportunity to talk over others, so much so that I had to keep him after 3 different classes to tell him to ease up and let others have the chance. His most momentous response to this was: "No way. These students don't care. If they would, they'd talk. I care. I need this class. I want to learn. You should teach the interested ones!"

He also loved to dispute or question assignments, regardless of how innocuous the guidelines might be.

He had a particular fondness for going after me in class for word counts.

"Why 500 words? Will you fail me if I write 499 or 501? What if I do what I want to do and turn in 5000?"

"Well," I'd start, "there are all kinds of reasons for word counts, sometimes it's about the level of detail I want you to use on a thesis, other times it has to do with offering reasonable limits to help you safeguard writing 5000 words when they aren't necessary."

It was constant. The 11 weeks dragged. People would roll their eyes when he started things like: "I don't get why I have to use MLA style. What if I don't care about documenting my sources? That should be my prerogative. Maybe while you're writing research papers I want to write a feature article like the ones in magazines I read." (Oh, don't ask. I was horrified to learn what mags he wanted to emulate.)

"I feel as if you've dampened all the creativity out of this class," he said one day. "You're all about rules, and I'm about language!"

As I was walking to class this morning, Rick was headed the other way.

"Hey, Sid," he said. "I've dropped the class. Got some stuff that's more important to me than finishing up the work I'm late on. Plus, I'm a little pissed that I didn't get individualized instruction and attention."

"Gaw," I said. "Smerghhh, ugggggggh."

"Like it says on the TV commercials. Right? Individualized instruction. Learn at your own pace. You don't follow that. Still, it was fun debating with you."

And then he was gone.


  1. Oh man, that 11th-hour withdrawal policy sucks. He got to be a drain on you all semester, and you didn't even get the pleasure of giving him the low grade that he probably (richly) deserved. My sympathies.

  2. Someone needs to invent a vocal cord neutralizer with pain settings.

    1. We will begin immediately!

      - Technical staff at Third Directorate, FSB
      Moscow, Russian Federation

    2. Streinikov, can't you just steal the plans from the US or China? it worked during the Cold War....

  3. Someone really needs to talk to the ad departments that do PR for colleges. Those of us at CCs get the worst because we're supposed to be all warm and fuzzy and helpful. Oh, and cheap--don't forget cheap!

    I hate that we advertise at all. I think it plays into the whole customer mentality. Then, when we get students like Rick who think individualized instruction means "I get to decide what's taught, how it's taught, and what I have to do with it," those shiny ads come back and bite us in the ass.

    1. A local CC has been pitching "instant acceptance" days.
      Near universal acceptance isn't bad enough.
      Now you have to make it sound like it's winning the lottery?

      I died a little inside.

  4. Is it just my imagination, or did tools like Rick get their ass handed to them back in the day?

    Or did the Ricks of the world just avoid college back then?

    1. I saw a snippet of a Brady Bunch episode recently.

      Peter (the middle son) was nervous because he thought he'd done poorly on a test.
      He reluctantly goes to see the teacher, who looked to be older than chalk.

      "You wanted to see me, Mr. Nongenarian?"
      "Oh yes, Mr. Brady," he replies, his tone dripping with disapproval.
      "I'm very disappointed in you Peter," handing him the corrected exam, "you were usually one of my better students."
      "Yes, sir," Peter says slinking out the door before he sees the RED (!) D at the top of the page.

      That was it.
      You ... THE STUDENT ... you blew it.
      Not that you personally suck, but your work was disappointing.
      No negotiation, no debate.
      There was an assessment. You didn't do well. Next.

      OK, yes, this was totally fictional.
      (And the Brady Bunch might even be characterized as mythical.)

      But, in 2005 when I started one of my first steady online gigs with a largely mature adult population, the most common responses to feedback was along the lines of "Sorry, I'm getting back into college work. Thanks for letting me know. I'll work on that."

      Today, it's a 50/50 shot that I will get a "Who the hell are you to tell me how to write?"

    2. "Who the hell are you to tell me how to write?"

      Replies I use for this are:

      "Someone who is TRYING to prepare you for a job, after graduation!"

      "Someone who has published and worked with editors extensively!"

      and my fave:

      "Someone who is fully authorized and encouraged by the Provost of the University, who used to be a professor of English!"

  5. Methinks Rick is going to have a very, very hard time in the work world. And yes, I wish the power balance in colleges of all kinds was still such that he would also have a very, very hard time in the higher ed world, but I fear that is no longer the case.

    I wonder whether he's going to end up as a permanent resident of his boyhood bedroom (at least until Mom and Dad need assistance in their old age and discover to their horror that his only reaction is to be indignant that they're no longer caring for him), or some sort of white-collar criminal (indicted or not?) It could go either way.

    I do suspect there are lots and lots of trophies in that bedroom.

    1. I had a student much like this whom I really feel sorry for, although he has caused half the instructors in the department a lot of trouble.

      He will write to instructors in advance to ask for special attention (I can't come on Tuesdays will you tutor me separately on what I missed? Will you be starting a study group? Will you attend the study group? Other profs tutor me separately and come to study groups isn't it part of your job?) and then flounce - to the chair, usually - when the answer is no, i.e. "you can come to my office hours with your questions after you've reviewed the material".

      When he does sign up for a class, He will show up for the first 3 weeks, suck all the air out of the room when he comes demanding special attention and acknowledgement of his wonderfulness. Then he'll do badly on the first quiz, stop coming,drop it, and write to the chair to blame the instructor.

      I feel sorry for him though because his real problem is that he's just not as smart as he thinks he is. But it really matters to him to be that smart. So he keeps butting his head against the wall, thinking that this time, SUREly, he can learn without doing any work, which will prove that he is just that smart. The point isn't learning anything; it's proving that he's a genius. And he's not, the poor little bastard. And I sympathize because I've been there. It took me ages to figure out that the point of university was not proving that I was a genius; it was learning cool stuff; and that this took work.

      But I never thought the instructors were to blame for my numerous failures before I figured it out, and I sure as hell never wrote to the chair.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. I had this problem too, until I realized that more ability begets more ambition. I might have had an easier time if I'd have been content with a boring life, but I wanted to be an astronomer, and all the things that I needed to know in order to do that (chemistry, electronics, mathematics, physics) took actual work. Plus, all the other kids wanting to be astronomers had been the best in their high-school classes, too. It certainly never occurred to be to blame my professors, much less damn them to their superiors.

  6. I have a niece, Slackella, who is a Rick... she is 31 years old, has never worked a meaningful job, and is still sponging off of my spineless sister-in-law.

    Her Mom says "If only S had gotten personalized attention, she would have been more successful in school."

    My response? "I wish she had been able to get personalized attention from the Dominican nuns in my grade school, or, gawd help us all, those sock-and-sandal-wearing Franciscans at my high school."

    Sis-in-law was unamused.

    1. Ah, at least Sis-in-law got the joke!

    2. She got it, but did not like it!

      I forgot to mention that Slackella's "unique creativity" was also cited as a reason that the educational system failed her. Oh, and her "fearless individuality" also underwhelmed her audience, apparently.

      I did ***not*** reply that the nuns would have put some fear in her sense of speshulness....and admired myself vastly for my self-control.

  7. It's bad whenever I put substantial time and effort into a student like this, and it's all for nothing. What's worse is when they show up in next semester's class, raring to go as always.

  8. I got individualized instruction, also known as personalized attention, in the Latin class I took at 12. There were two other students in the class. Whenever individualized instruction is mentioned today, I wave to my class of 100 and say, "I do my best."

  9. Ever read the novels of Hermann Hesse? I enjoyed them when I was a teenager, because he idolized students like this.

    In "Beneath the Wheel," the protagonist is brought to ruin by one, who of course gets another chance at another school because his papa is rich. The protagonist's isn't, so after flunking out he takes work as a mechanic, for which his academy background has ill prepared him, and he drowns after a bender. In "Demian," the protagonist is the overly free-spirited one, and who naturally gets all the clean slates he needs. In "Siddhartha," the protagonist does achieve enlightenment, but it's never said whether his abandoned wife and child do. In "Narcissus and Goldmund," Goldman tries to end his relationship with his art mentor, naturally only after having expended huge amounts of his mentor's time and energy, with a handshake. When the mentor gets angry, Hesse clearly wants his readers to sympathize with Goldmund, not his mentor.

    But then, Goldmund's mentor is just a narrow-minded, bourgeois stereotype of the kind Hesse enjoys ridiculing. And what about the trail of lovers Goldmund leaves behind him? How many had children by him, and who will take care of them? Certainly not Goldmund. Since the 1960s, "doing your own thing" like this has become a problem for American society. Far too many people don't seem to realize that other people need to live on this planet too. Hesse's ideas may have seemed intriguing in the repressive and repressed Germany of Hesse's time (and in the America of the early '60s), but now it's become obvious that Hesse's ideas have problems of their own. We may stop kicking the bourgeoisie, also known as the middle class: they've been under siege for a long time now.

    Of course, this analysis has only limited applicability to this case, since Hesse's characters were fictional. They were also intelligent.

    As far as the creativity argument goes, every now and then I do get students in my general-ed science course who wonder whether my insistence on logic, facts, evidence, and quality composition and style "inhibits creativity." The answer is no: no more so than the format of the minuet inhibited Mozart, or the form of the sonnet stifled Shakespeare, or the myriad forms of mathematics inhibited every mathematician in the history of the world, or physical reality inhibited every scientist in the history of the world. The truth is, when given well-defined sets of rules, creativity does well. Few things help creativity better than a firm deadline.

    1. P.S. I never read "The Glass Bead Game," which is why I only ever got a B in that literature class. But then, even as a 17-year-old freshperson, I didn't whine to the prof about it, since I knew it was my own fault.

    2. Your Hesse comment just reminded me of the semester when I had a half-dozen Hesse protagonists in a technical communication class. Oh, what a tyrant I was! I didn't allow them to express their creativity! I kept them from fulfilling their true potential because I insisted on formatting and word length parameters and professional vocabulary. I made them choose from topics related to business or technical writing tasks.

      To this day, I hope their employers are grateful I kept them from hiring someone with the skills of Goldmund.

    3. @EnglishDoc: Whatever you do, DON'T hand them a copy of Steppenwolf!

    4. They've missed part of the creativity equation: understanding the rules makes creativity possible and meaningful.

    5. I have to disagree with your analysis of Demian. It is one of my favorite books, not because it tells people to be disrespectful jerkoffs like this kid, but because it warns the reader of the perils of letting other people control the trajectory of your life. I found the book to be mysterious on many levels, and I'd encourage people to read it.

    6. When did you last read "Demian"? If it was when you were a teenager, have a look at it today. I recently did this with "Steppenwolf," which was written by Hesse as he was approaching 50, about the problems of that age, and he complained that it was his most "violently misunderstood" works because it had "fallen into the hands of very young readers."

  10. Question that this has prompted me to ponder. Why do universities allow students to withdraw from classes so late? What could possibly be gained from it. Hell, why allow them to withdraw at all? Let them stop coming and take their F that they so richly deserve. An F for failing or flouncing should not be seen as a bad thing, and letting students withdraw penalty-free should be discouraged.

    Maybe I was just raised with some respect for the idea that your grade is what you earn and it is on you, the student, to work to achieve a good grade and not the duty of the teacher to hand them out like candy, but I never withdrew from a course. I took the Cs, accepted that it was my own fault, and changed my major to something where I both enjoyed the work and felt capable. My first year and a half my plan was just a terrible fit for me. But I learned. Because I took the grades I earned and didn't wuss out.

    So why is wussing out even an option?

    1. And what are these kids going to have nightmares about in their 30s and 40s (and probably beyond; I haven't tested that yet) if the answer to having forgotten one was registered for a class until two days before the exam is simply to drop the class? An important part of our collective consciousness will be lost.

    2. Having the W option is important, I think, but I wholeheartedly agree that there have to be limits on its availability. My school keeps the W available until the very. last. day. of class -- which is a complete joke. It would be more honest to time it for right around midterm, so those who bomb the midterm exam, thereby realizing their own unpreparedness/laziness/hubris/etc, have some way to bow out and save some face. Then they can try a new minor or elective, or get supplemental tutoring before taking another stab at it if it's a required course.

      As for Sid, man, you have all my sympathies. May the registrar gods see that Rick ends up with Strelly next term instead of you.

    3. We used to have the W available till the week before finals. We also used to allow grade changes indefinitely, which made for some very awkward conversations when Reformed Rodney, who wanted to apply to some selective school, would come back 10 years later to have all his Fs changed to Ws only to discover his former proffie was either dead, retired, or an adjunct who had long since flown the coop. Thankfully the statute of limitations on grades is now three years (which is about two and a half years too long in my estimation). The W has been moved up to about 3/4 of the way through a term. I agree with Edna's assessment. A week after midterms is reasonable. Anything more than that is a waste unless truly exceptional circumstances exist.

    4. It may have to do with how the school (or the state?) calculates FTE?

      Our drop/W day is usually during week 10 of a 15 week semester. This gives the little darlings 2 weeks after midterm grades have been released to meet with an advisor who will then tell the little darlings to go beg their proffies for help. I HATE the 2 weeks after midterms, mostly because the little darlings can see the reason(s) (a row of zeros) for their low/failing grades in our LMS. I don't hide anything. I then have to spend my precious CM time explaining with as much patience as I can muster that NO, YOU CANNOT MAKE UP MISSED WORK. Blerg.

    5. My SLAC did not allow W's. The best you could do was an incomplete, and the reason had better damn be good. I had no idea what a W was until I started doing my grad work at Big-ass Directional State, where nothing is every final, and students have multiple options for covering up those infelicitous moments.

      My favorite is the "retroactive withdrawal." This can be used to turn an F into a magical W if you can get an advisor or a doctor to say that you were having a hard time last semester.

      I once brought up the question, in front of our creepy ombudsman, if all this nth-hour-withdrawal stuff was really good for the undergrad. My questions were basically the same as yours--shouldn't students be taught some kind of accountability? What kind of message are we sending by telling people that they can blow off eleven weeks of class and skate away with an inoccuous W? Wrong question. Creepy ombudsman flipped a shit, saying that he didn't know why I cared so much and that I needed to show more compassion for the undergraduate student.

  11. I'm amazed at how late the W is available in some places.

    Our campus allows a W, without professor approval, through the end of Week 4. Any attempt to withdraw without consequences after that deadline requires your instructor's approval, as well as documentation of a major, compelling reason for withdrawal.

    In our case, the biggest problem is sometimes the instructors themselves, or at least some of them. Some profs will sign a W form in Week 6 or 8 or 10 or 12 without even bothering to ask questions.

    I always try to see whether the reason for withdrawing is a decent one. Last semester, for example, I signed a form in Week 7 last year for a student whose husband was in the military, and who had just received new orders. It would have been a bit hard for her to attend classes from Guam, or Okinawa, or Germany, or wherever it was the family moved to. If they have simply been lazy all semester, though, and just want to avoid the crappy grade, I won't sign.

    One thing I've sometimes wondered, though, is how many students forge their instructors' signatures. The form for withdrawing is very simple, and all the instructor has to do is place a signature in a box. I'm sure that the people in the admin offices have no idea what my signature looks like, and so they also have no way to know whether the signature in the box is mine. In the cases where I refuse a student's request to withdraw, I always keep an eye on his or her enrollment status in the university computer system, just in case.

  12. When I was in college -- back in the old country -- there was no withdrawal policy: you would withdraw by not taking the final exam or, as some did, sneaking away from the room without turning it in. You would have to take it again (and again) until you passed the class. The limit was, I think, eight times.
    Passing rate was, in many classes, under 30%, so it was an altogether different game. More like a death march.

  13. Does Rick have a twin brother? I swear I had a student just like him last semester.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.